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Asian Champions Trophy: India face Japan in semifinals
When the veteran Indian custodian steps onto the Mayor Radhakrishnan Hockey Stadium pitch on Friday in India’s semifinal against Japan, it will be the 300th international appearance for former India captain Sreejesh in a decorated career spanning almost two decades.
The moment will be nostalgic for the 35-year-old Sreejesh in more ways than one.
While Sreejesh comes from Kerala, he is registered as a player with the Tamil Nadu state
hockey federation, during which time he played domestic hockey for the Indian Overseas Bank. Those memories will come flooding back in his 300th game for India.
Asian Champions Trophy: India defeat Pakistan
“This remarkable achievement is a testament to his unwavering dedication, exceptional skills and unyielding passion for the sport,” wrote former India coach and current USA men’s team coach Harendra Singh in a Facebook post.
“Sreejesh has not only guarded the Indian goalpost with unparalleled prowess, but has also inspired countless aspiring athletes across the nation,” added Harendra, who fondly calls Sreejesh ‘Jangoo’.
But the larger aim of the game on Friday is to qualify for the final and beat Japan, which is the only team India hasn’t beaten in this competition so far and managed to check India’s tactics.
It’s almost like a blank canvas for me with all the players: India hockey coach Craig Fulton
The league-stage meeting between the two teams ended in a 1-1 draw, but the home team’s Chief Coach Craig Fulton believes if his boys can show some better scoring consistency than their previous match against Japan in the tournament, then the final scoreline should be in their favour.
The head-to-head may be heavily loaded in India’s favour but the reigning Asian Games champions are no push-overs, and can unsettle any team with their speed and stamina on the pitch.
In 34 matches between the two teams, India have won 27 and lost only 3. The other four games ended as drawn affairs.
Harmanpreet Singh will remain the biggest threat for the Japanese Samurai if the Indian forwards can create enough penalty corners, which is where Japan would want to fortify their defence and reduce the number of Indian circle penetrations.
With 7 goals, the tournament’s top goal-scorer Harmanpreet has been the toast of the Chennai crowd over the last week. Led by his drag-flick dominance, India also head the overall scoring charts with 20 goals, which include 14 off penalty corners — again the most by any of the six teams in the competition.
That helped India to four wins in five league games and finish on top of the points table with 13 points, followed by Malaysia, who had 12, while No. 3 South Korea and No. 4 Japan had five points each and were separated by goal difference.
South Korea will take on Malaysia in the first semifinal on Friday, preceded by the 5th-6th playoff game between China and Pakistan.
Japan must thank India for their top-four finish to qualify for the semis because it was India’s overwhelming 4-0 win over Pakistan that allowed Japan to leapfrog Pakistan, who also had five points, on goal difference.
But the teams would like to bury those numbers and focus on the match that matters.
In coach Fulton’s words: “The tournament starts now”.
Watch Asian Champions Trophy: India face Japan in semifinals